The news that Dax McCarty has been called into the U.S. squad ahead of next month's World Cup qualifiers, while Sacha Kljestan has not, is a reminder that the fortunes of the two -- which once seemed to be inextricably linked -- have now diverged for good. McCarty's great start with Chicago and Kljestan's struggles to deal with McCarty's absence in New York and the expectations of the captaincy have defined the opening third of the season for each player.
There was a time when international weeks were a moment when Kljestan and McCarty would be redoubling their efforts in New York Red Bulls training sessions, as they wondered just what they had to do for their performances to merit a U.S. call-up. And even as their respective claims seemed more and more irresistible, amid a Red Bulls midfield that had been one of the most effective in the league in the past couple of seasons, all that seemed to happen was that their serial omissions became more and more notable.
The irony perhaps is that both players appeared to be victims of their own success; or rather, the success of the midfield trio, completed by Felipe Martins, that hummed so efficiently as the engine of the New York pressing game. In appearing to add up to something greater than the sum of its parts, the combo minimized the contribution of each individual player; the suspicion lingered that without the other two, any one player would be markedly diminished.
It was always an unfair perspective, and somehow it was made worse by the fleeting looks either player had at the national team squad.
In one January team camp, traditionally the moment when players on the fringe get their chance to break through, McCarty was the only player on the roster not to see the field.
Kljestan, meanwhile, had not seen any international action since bouncing around a couple of slightly ill-fitting wide midfield roles early in the Klinsmann era. He looked to have finally broken through last year, only to be returned to the outside looking in for the forthcoming games, reminding the 2016 MVP finalist that his international place was still very provisional.
But while it's arguable that neither player has had a fair shake, the season so far has certainly given us a chance to assess just what impact the presence -- and now absence -- of the other has had on both McCarty's and Kljestan's games.
On that score, it seems easier to see why McCarty has been called up and Kljestan hasn't. McCarty has gone straight into the heart of a just-add-water Chicago midfield that also features Juninho and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The presence of the latter has naturally placed even a dominant MLS presence like McCarty in a support, if not subordinate role, and given that's a role he's been performing with various versions of the Red Bulls team for several years now, McCarty has slot straight into place.
It's also a role that's largely reactive: closing down danger, maintaining balance and shape to adapt to changing circumstances. At the Red Bulls, it allowed the team to play high up the field, and for Kljestan to concentrate on drifting into dangerous pockets outside the box, between the opposing midfield and defense, knowing the team behind him would be calibrated to deal with breakdowns more often than not.
But with McCarty gone, Kljestan has had no such luxury, and it shows. The role of team captain is often overemphasized in terms of the responsibilities it entails, but the new Red Bulls captain at times has made it look as if the role comes with a whole heap of admin he has to carry out while also trying to do what earned him the position of influence in the first place.
Relentless at their best, with Kljestan setting a tempo of metronomic passing and incisive angles, the Red Bulls have looked labored far too often this year; the wing play, attacks through the middle, positioning without the ball, central defense and just general cohesion have been off. Sean Davis is developing, but not at the rate of being a like-for-like McCarty replacement that the team needed him to be. Tyler Adams, 18, may turn out to be a great player, but is far from a midfield general as yet.
And amid it all, Kljestan has seemed to have a shopping list of responsibilities he can never quite get to. Mindful of defensive responsibilities and contingencies, he's been picking up the ball deeper and laying off to players who seem similarly preoccupied. Chasing back more often to help out is admirable commitment, but it further isolates Bradley Wright-Phillips up front. The harder Kljestan has tried to kickstart the season, the more ineffective he's been.
Again it's easy to simplify and say that the evidence so far shows that Kljestan needs McCarty more than McCarty needs Kljestan, but in truth both players are still doing what they always have done in leading by example; the difference has been that the players around Kljestan have hardly been doing enough to free him up to do what he does best, which has created a vicious circle of him not trusting them and overcompensating, to the ultimate detriment of everyone.
It was telling that Saturday night's cathartic come-from-behind win against the New England Revolution was dominated by Kljestan once again playing in an advanced position and seemingly trusting that the midfielders beside him, including Felipe taking on a more explicitly defensive role, would just do their jobs. The knock-on effects were apparent. This misfiring engine wasn't purring exactly, but this looked something like the Red Bulls of old.
Whether that's enough for Kljestan to get another look in this U.S. cycle is a matter of time -- the uptick in the past two games came too late to convince Bruce Arena. But if he needs inspiration, he can note the presence of McCarty on the national team roster and remind himself that redemption is always possible.